Nature in a time of lockdown

Beginning this article with one of my favourite quotes is a little self-indulgent, but I think quite apt given our current circumstances. George Orwell wrote his essay, ‘some thoughts on the Common Toad’ from which the aforementioned quote is the last paragraph, in 1946. The UK was, at the time of its publication, reeling after five years of war and ongoing attempts to feed its population and to rebuild its society, and a bitterly harsh winter. Earlier in his essay, Orwell notes:

“Life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money.”

We currently find ourselves in unprecedented times, where humans, rather than the non-human world, finds itself lockdown #StayHome#SaveTheNHS #SaveLives being the mantra we must all adhere to if we are to keep ourselves and our loved ones alive.

For every single one of us, what was once our daily normal rhythm and routine is altered: work and social lives, our daily interactions are all altered, resources of money become scarce, and this can lead to heightened levels of stress and anxiety, not great for our immune systems and our general sense of health and wellbeing. Finding ways of thriving under such circumstances is a challenge. Creating new daily rhythms, new structures to our lives can help and we are fortunate to have the natural world as a salve and guide during this time. For us Beestonians, there is a gratitude at living in a part of the world where we have a nature reserve on our doorstep, a river and canal where nature thrives, and street trees and parks and green spaces to take time and appreciate. For myself, the dawn and dusk chorus is my new rhythm. Nature will continue however and whatever humans do, with our without us. Maybe, this lockdown gifts the time to reflect on the purpose of life and how we might live more harmoniously and sustainably aware of our place in the ecology of our local, national and international ecosystems.

For those of us who are able to get outside beyond our homes, a daily maximum two hours of exercise offers up the prospect of noticing anew the natural landscapes that exist in our streets, along towpaths, footpaths and parks. The change in seasons with the change to British Summertime offers more daylight hours, and we have so far been fortunate that the weather has been kind for this time of year. Reduced motorised traffic and fewer vapour trails of aeroplanes in the sky have resulted in reduced air pollution. The dawn and dusk chorus of blackbirds, sparrows and wood pigeons is more audible.

For those unable to leave their homes, opening windows to listen to nature has become important. The sound of birdsong has a proven health benefit in reducing stress to the listener. Being able to focus attention to plants: whether indoor house plants or impromptu pots of windowsill herbs all give a connection to a natural life rhythm. To plant seeds is to enact a sense of hope, to watch new life form and grow offers the prospect that there will be tomorrows, and that while life will inevitably be very tough for the many of us, there remains a constant hopeful gift that the natural world gives: that the earth still orbits the sun, that flora and fauna still grow, and that we, ourselves might find more sustainable ways of living that are slower, kinder more sustaining in the future for ourselves, our families and our communities more generally.

On my walks around Beeston, I have renewed pleasure and attachment to our trees, many of which are or have been in bloom: cherry trees, magnolias have all been heavy of bow with blooms, large bees and hover files seem more present as they gather nectar and pollinate plants. Given my #TreesOfBeeston column, I would ask that during this lockdown time, TheBeestonian offers a space where we can share our favourite #TreesOfBeeston. Post on Twitter (linking @Beestonian, hashtag #TreesOfBeeston with your favourite trees you have seen during lockdown and why you love them. It would be good to map this renewed appreciation and focus positive attention to the wonderful trees we have and value as part of our local geography. It would be a bit like a little Mass Observation exercise, a local voluntary survey of the trees most appreciated, that can then be mapped, comments collated, as a reminder that the natural world in and around Beeston helped human Beestonians through this time.

I know many, including myself, have found salve and respite in gardening. To be able to plant and begin to grow seeds that will eventually grow into herbs or vegetables for later eating in the summer is to connect with the earth and to feel a little more in control of where our food might be coming from. For those of us who enjoy foraging for wild garlic, nettles and garlic mustard and dandelions, it is an opportunity to appreciate the wild plants that somehow manage to return and survive in the cracks of pavements and along grass verges (although picking these might be bad for one’s health so best leave these for the birds and bees). While saddened that events like Greening Beeston’s seed swap could not take place, finding local activities celebrating the restorative and sustaining power of nature during lockdown has been affirming. Incredible Edible Beeston had only just begun planting its first community patch, but its members can be found on Instagram and Facebook alongside Beeston Eco-Action Team, sharing advice on gardening, planting, growing. Such times give renewed focus that plant lore and knowing how to grow herbs and vegetables is as vital to resilience as knowing and appreciating the trees and natural ecosystems in and around Beeston. My own #ApothecaryAllotmentGarden project: growing as much of my own wild plants and veggies as I am able in my small back garden has become vital to my mental and physical wellbeing. Connecting with others who share these passions means that as a community, we are able to collectively offer civic support to others, share our plant and nature knowledge and grow in sustainable resilience through such trying times.

Stay safe, keep well and look for the enriching natural world in your daily lives.

Dr JN

References: Orwell, G (1946) Some Thoughts on The Common Toad. First published in Tribune, 12 April 1946. From the Complete Works, XVIII, 2970, p. 238. https://www.orwellfoundation. com/the-Orwell-foundation/Orwell/essaysand-other-works/some-thoughts-on-thecommon-toad/

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